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Obama Briefs Congress; British Prime Minister Talks Syria Military Options; Lawmakers Want Vote On Striking Syria; Miliband: U.N. Inspection Must Finish; British Opposition Debates Syria Action

Aired August 29, 2013 - 10:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: -- fast food fiasco, a nationwide strike happening now. Workers saying they need to make a living wage.

George Zimmerman's wife living like a gypsy in a 20-foot trailer in the woods and all so she and her husband could stay safe.

Doctors give her months to live, but Valerie Harper is ignoring them. She is joining the cast of "Dancing with the Stars." The second hour of NEWSROOM starts now.

Good morning. Thank you very much for being with me. I'm Carol Costello. We begin in Syria as the march toward military strikes now slows to a crawl. Washington and its allies facing growing concerns at home and abroad so today the focus shifts to building a consensus. President Obama is reportedly bending to the demands of lawmakers. He will consult with Congress. Senator John Cornyn says Obama will hold a conference call today to brief them. We'll hear from the president in just a minute.

In the meantime, Britain deploys a half dozen warplanes to Cyprus just off Syria's coast. Russia moves ships into the Mediterranean. The region goes on alert, and the U.K. goes on record sharing some of its intelligence on last week's apparent chemical weapon attack.

In Syria today, U.N. inspections teams try to gather more evidence, and that could be crucial. The Associated Press cites U.S. intelligence sources as saying the case against the Assad regime is no slam-dunk. Those inspectors, we've learned, will leave Syria by Saturday.

Right now in London, the British Prime Minister David Cameron is facing lawmakers in the House of Commons. He's making the case for possible military strikes in Syria, and then those members of parliament will hold their own debate. Let's listen for a bit.

DAVID CAMERON, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER: -- to destroy stockpiles will be undone. The global consensus against the use of chemical weapons will be fatally unravelled. A 100-year taboo will be breached. People ask about the British national interest. Is it not in the British national interest that rules about chemical weapons are upheld? In my view, of course it is. That is why I believe we shouldn't stand idly by.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm grateful to the prime minister and not notwithstanding the differences I have with him on the issue of timing and his approach to conflict. Can I bring up the issue of consequences? Does he agree with me that whoever is responsible for chemical weapons attacks should know that they will face a court whether that is the international criminal court or a specially convened war-crimes tribunal in the future? Whether there is military intervention or not, somebody is responsible for a heinous crime. They should face the law.

CAMERON: For the record, I certainly agree. I certainly agree that people should be subject to international criminal court. Of course, possession and use of chemical weapons is a crime and can be prosecuted. But we have to recognize the slowness of those wheels and the fact that Syria is not even a signatory to that treaty. Let me make more progress, and then I will give way.

As I've said, I've consulted the attorney general. He's confirmed the use of chemical weapons in Syria, constitutes both a war crime and a crime again humanity. I want to be clear about the process that we follow. The motion is clear. The weapons investigators in Damascus must complete their work. They should brief the United Nations Security Council. A genuine attempt should be made at a Chapter 7 resolution backing all necessary measures.

Then and only then can we have another vote in this House and British involvement on direct military action. I explained again before the legal position. And I don't need to repeat that again. But I would urge colleagues to read this legal advice, which I put in the library of the House of Commons. Let me repeat one more time -- we have not reached that point. We've not made the decision to act. But were there to be a decision to act, this advice proves that it would be legal. Now I'll take your comments.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. Prime minister, would he agree that our constituent across the House are concerned about Britain becoming involved in another Middle Eastern conflict, whereas he's telling the House that he is focusing specifically on the war crimes use of chemical weapons, which is a different matter from Britain being involved in a protracted Middle Eastern war.

CAMERON: I completely agree with my honorable friend. I'm fully aware of the deep public skepticism there is. The war weariness there is in our country. Linked to the fact that people have had difficult economic times to deal with, as well, and they're asking questions about why Britain has to do so much in the world. I totally understand that. And I think we should reassure our constituents by saying this is about chemical weapons. This is not about intervention. This is not about getting involved in another Middle Eastern war. Former home secretary?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you very much. Mr. Speaker -- Mr. Speaker? Member Blackburn -- Mr. Speaker, the prime minister said a moment ago that in the health care reform of the House that while the purpose of any action would be the degrading -- his words -- of the chemical weapons capability of the Assad regime, in a letter which General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sent to Carl Levin in the United States Congress a couple of months ago, he spoke out that fully to do that would involve hundreds of ships and aircraft and thousands of ground troops at the cost of $1 billion a month. Could the prime minister since he's not proposing that say what his objective would be in terms of degrading the chemical weapons capability.

CAMERON: I think of course there are many jobs, home secretary, Foreign Secretary, perhaps I should refer to him as my constituent. Perhaps a safer way, he makes a good point. He makes a very good point which is what I think the Dempsey letter was addressing was that if you wanted entirely to dismantle or attempt to dismantle Syria's weapons arsenal that would be an enormous undertaking that would involve grand troops, involve all sorts -- that is not what is being proposed.

What is being proposed were we to take part is an attempt to deter and to degrade the future use. That is very different and you would do that. I don't want to set out at the dispatch box at the House of Commons a list of targets. But it's perfectly simple and straightforward to think of actions you could take to do with command and control of the use of chemical weapons and the people and buildings involved in that which would indeed deter and degrade.

Honorable members, when I think ask this point a number of ways, how can we be certain any action will work? How can we be certain any action wouldn't have to be repeated? And frankly, those are judgment issues. The only really firm judgment I think we can all come to is if nothing is done, we're more likely to see more chemical weapons used. I give way to my honorable friend.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I thanks for the prime minister giving way. Although the Joint Intelligence Committee say their baffled as it the motivation for Assad using chemical weapons, they do say they have a limited but growing body of intelligence which supports the judgment that the regime was responsible. I appreciate that the prime minister cannot share such intelligence with the House as a whole, but members of the all party intelligence and security committee have top-secret clearance to look at precisely this sort of material. And as members of that committee, both some support and some oppose military intervention, would he be willing for members of the committee to see that material?

CAMERON: Well, I'm very happy to consider that request because the intelligence and security committee plays a very important role. Let me say this -- I don't want to raise, as perhaps was raised in the Iraq debate, the status of individual or even groups of intelligence into some sort of quasi-religious cult. That wouldn't be appropriate. What I've said to the House of Commons, there is an enormous amount of open source reporting. There's enormous amount of videos we can see.

There's the fact we know that the regime has an enormous arsenal. The fact they've used it before. The fact they were attacking that area. With the opposition, there's the fact they don't have those weapons, delivery systems, and the attack took place in an area which they were holding. Yes, of course, intelligence is part of this picture. But let's not pretend there is one smoking piece of intelligence that can solve the whole problem. This is a judgment issue and one which honorable members will have to make a judgment. I give way to my honorable friend.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I thank the prime minister. He's being very, very generous. The reason many of us in parliament oppose the arming of the rebels, it's not only that there is atrocities committed by both sides in this civil war, but the real risk of escalating the violence and, therefore, the suffering. No matter how clinical the strikes, there is a real risk, I suggest, that the violence is escalated. It can only result in that. What assurances can he give them that the -- this won't escalate the violence both within the country and beyond Syria's borders?

CAMERON: The honorable -- my honorable friend and I haven't agreed about every aspect of Syria policy. That is well known. If we were to take action, it would be purely and simply about degrading and deterring chemical weapons use. When we worry about escalation, the greatest form of escalation that we have in front of us is the danger of additional chemical weapons use because nothing has been done. As I say, this debate, this motion, this issue is not about arming the rebels. It's not about intervening in the conflict. It's not about invasion. It's not about changing our approach on Syria. It's about chemical weapons and something I think everyone in this house has an interest in. I give way it my honorable friend.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I thank the prime minister. The use of chemical weapons has made Syria our business. Does the prime minister agree that to miss the opportunity to send a strong message to Assad and others, that this house condemns this war crime, the use of chemical weapons, and we will stand by our obligations to deter them would be to undermine our own national security?

CAMERON: I think the honorable lady makes an important point. One of the questions our constituents ask most is where is the British national interest. I would argue a stable Middle East is a national interest. I think there's a specific national interest relating to the chemical weapons use that we've seen and preventing its escalation. I've tried in this section of my speech -- I'll give way a bit more in a minute. I want to give time for speeches.

I've been trying to address these questions that people have. Let me take the next question of whether we would be in danger of undermining our ambitions for a political solution in Syria. There's not some choice between on the one hand acting to prevent chemical weapons being used again the Syrian people and on the other continuing to push for a long-term political solution. We need to do both.

We remain absolutely committed to using diplomacy to end this war with a political solution. But let me make this point -- for as long as Assad is able to defy international will and get away with chemical attacks on his people, I believe he will feel little if any pressure to come to the negotiating table. He is happy going on killing, maiming his own people, as part of his strategy for winning that brutal civil war. So far from undermining the political process --

COSTELLO: All right, we're going to step away, but this has been fascinating, right? Don't you wish we would do it the same way in the United States? That would be amazing and quite educational. A growing mix of lawmakers, both Republicans and Democrats, here in the United States say Congress should have to authorize any use of military force.

Chief congressional correspondent Dana Bash is in Washington, and also Michael Crowley from "Time" magazine joins us because he wrote a very interesting article in "Time" magazine talking about the president's war stance or how the president's stance on military action has changed since 2008. So welcome to you both.

So Dana, I want to start with you because we've been watching what's taking place in the British parliament. By the way, the British parliament was called back from break so that the British prime minister could have this debate with elected officials. Why isn't that happening in the United States?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, for a lot of reasons. First of all, what you just saw is absolutely fascinating, but it is sort of a staple of the British political system is for the prime minister to stand there, frankly, and take it and have this what is called question time with members of parliament. You know, certainly you said that you would like to see it here. You're not the president of the United States.

He doesn't have to go and do that. That's one thing that he probably is breathing a sigh of relief on. You know, instead, what he is doing is he is receiving letters from the House speaker, the opposition leader if you will here in the United States, like the one I held up. And it is something that the speaker said yesterday with a series of 14 very pointed, very specific questions, not unlike exactly what David Cameron is getting now in the House of Commons.

Asking the president to answer publicly and tell the American people the scope of any kind of mission, what the goal would be, what the parameters would be, and to make that clear before the president authorizes any kind of military action. But it was also interesting about the letter that the speaker sent, Carol, that it did not say that he is going to seek congressional authorization, meaning a vote, before any military action. He wants the president to answer to things publicly.

COSTELLO: Of course, some lawmakers do want congressional approval before any military action is taken. I find it interesting, Michael Crowley, that President Obama, when he was running for office in 2008, said this, "The president does not have the power under the constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation." So what's changed?

MICHAEL CROWLEY, DEPUTY WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, "TIME" MAGAZINE: Well, what's change sudden that he's now in office, and you have a lot more leeway to make sweeping comments when you're a candidate than when you're responsible for the national security of the country. The threats look different. The language that Jay Carney used in the White House press briefing on that question was interesting.

I think if I recall correctly he was saying that enforcing the sort of international taboo against the use of chemical weapons is a national security interest of the United States, so important that it rises to the level of a threat if you don't enforce it. I think that's how they're trying to justify it. I think the short answer is he was a candidate, everyone was angry at George Bush for taking what they call unilateral actions. It was an easy thing to say. Now looks different on the other side.

COSTELLO: Dana, I think that the American people are concerned that again America doesn't have an -- doesn't have an end game. So let's say you, you know, perform some sort of military strike on Syria, you're not taking out Assad. Well, then what? Like do you just -- I don't know, teach Syria a lesson and move on because there could be larger consequences.

BASH: Absolutely, that is one of the major concerns that you're hearing from members of Congress and even the speaker who wants the president to be more specific to answer those questions. It's, I think, another major reason why you're not seeing the House speaker, for example, call the House back to session. They're not in session. Not going to be back for about two weeks is because this is one area where Republicans don't want to embarrass the president.

They want the United States broadly to succeed on the world stage against some regimes, regime like -- like Assad's in Syria. And there is concern, there's no question that if they called Congress back, had a vote in the House, even the Senate maybe which is Democratic led, that it -- it might not pass. It might fail any kind of bid to authorize military action because of the concern that you talked about.

This is a war-weary country. Members of Congress hear from constituents all the time that kind of enough is enough. And until and unless the president makes a case, whether it's limited or not, it's going to be very difficult for Congress to hold a vote on something that actually could pass.

COSTELLO: That's really sad actually. Thank you, Dana Bash and Michael Crowley with "Time" magazine. Be sure to tune in today at Noon Eastern for CNN's special live coverage on the crisis in Syria. For the entire hour we'll break down the evidence, the U.S. military options, and how the crisis impacts the markets and your money. That's today Noon Eastern.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COSTELLO: We want to go back to the British parliament. The prime minister and members are debating the issue surrounding Syria in the same way that the United States is just behind closed doors. This is Edward Miliband, the British opposition leader. He is opposed to any action being taken in Syria because he's afraid that it will pull Britain into a larger war in that region. Let's listen.

(BEGIN LIVE FEED)

ED MILIBAND, BRITISH OPPOSITION LEADER: -- which is upholding international law and legitimacy. How can we make the lives of the Syrian people better? And we should remember on this occasion the duty we owe to the exceptional men and women of the armed forces and families who will face a direct consequence of any decision that we -- that we make.

Now Mr. Speaker, the basis on which we make this decision is of fundamental importance because the basis of making the decision determines legitimacy and moral authority of any action that we undertake. That's why our amendment asks the House to support a clear and legitimate roadmap to decision on this issue. A set of steps which enable us to judge any recommended international action.

And I want to develop the argument about why this sequential roadmap is, I believe, the right thing for the House to support today. Most of all, if we follow this roadmap, it can assure the country and the international community that if we take action we will follow the right, legitimate, and legal course, not an artificial timetable or political timetable set elsewhere. I think that is very, very important to any decision that we make.

Mr. Speaker, this is fundamental to the principles of Britain. A belief in the rule of law, a belief that any military action we take must be justified in terms of the cause and also potential consequences. And that we strain every since Tuesday make the international institutions we have work to dole with the outrages in Syria.

Let me turn to the conditions in our motion. First, and this is where the prime minister and I now agree, we must let the U.N. weapons inspectors do their work and let them report to the Security Council. Ban Ki-Moon, the U.N. secretary general, said yesterday about the weapons inspectors and I quote, "let them conclude their work for four days, and then we will analyze scientifically with expert, and then we will report to the security council for action."

So the weapons inspectors are in the midst of their work and will be reporting in the coming days. That is why today could not have been the day when the House was asked to decide on military action. For this House -- for this House -- for this House it is surely a basic point. Evidence should proceed decision, not decision proceed evidence, and I am -- I'm glad on reflection the prime minister accepted this yesterday.

Now, it is true because some people will raise this issue, the weapons inspectors cannot reach a judgment on the attrition of blame. That is beyond their mandate. Some might think that that makes their work essentially irrelevant. I disagree. If the U.N. weapons inspectors conclude that chemical weapons have been used, in the eyes of this country and the world that confers legitimacy on the finding beyond the view of any individual country or any intelligence agency.

What is more, it is possible that what the weapons inspectors discover could give the world greater confidence in identifying the perpetrators of this horrific attack. The second step, Mr. Speaker, in our roadmap makes clear that there needs to be compelling evidence that the Syrian regime is responsible for the attacks. I welcome the letter from the head of the joint conference on President Assad's culpability.

As far as the prime minister said, there is always reason for doubt, the greater the weight of evidence the better on. Tuesday we were promised there will be the release of American intelligence that there was proof of the regime culpability. We await the publication of that evidence, which I gather will be later today, but that evidence, too, will be important in building up the body of evidence that President Assad was responsible -- I will.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm grateful to the leader of the opposition. He's said he might be able to support military action of the kind the government is contemplating. He has put in his amendment a list of requirements, virtually all of which as far as I can tell appear in the government's own motion. Why can he not, therefore, support the government's motion in order that this house could speak with a united voice to the world --

MILIBAND: I'll explain why I don't think that's the case. I will point to the fact that the government's amendment does not mention compelling evidence against President Assad and I'll develop in my remarks on the fifth point in our amendment which is very, very important, the basis on which we judge whether action can be justified in terms of consequences. I will come to that later in my remarks.

The third step, Mr. Speaker, is that in light of the weapons inspectors' findings and the other evidence and as the secretary general said, the U.N. Security Council will debate what actions should be taken and indeed should vote on action. Mr. Speaker, I've heard it suggested that we should have a United Nations moment. That's certainly not my words. They're words which do no seriousness. The U.N. is not some inconvenient side show and we don't want to engineer a moment. Instead we want to adhere to the principles of international law. I give way to the honorable gentleman.

(END LIVE FEED)

COSTELLO: We'll step away from the lively debate in the British parliament. You heard the opposition leader say can't let the United States dictate what Britain does. So that's all part of the debate raging around the world right now. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COSTELLO: All right, we've been listening to a fascinating debate going on in the British parliament now between members of the British parliament and the British prime minister. They're talking about whether Britain should strike some sort of military action against Syria because of course of the chemical weapons attack there. We just heard from an opposition leader who takes the opposite stance from the British prime minister saying that Britain should not act before clear evidence is presented. Let's listen.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: To this House it is surely a basic point. Evidence should proceed, not decision proceed evidence and I am glad on reflection the prime minister accepted this yesterday.

COSTELLO: Republican Congressman Joseph Pitts from Pennsylvania joins me now live on the phone. Good morning.

REPRESENTATIVE JOE PITTS (R), PENNSYLVANIA (via telephone): Good morning.

COSTELLO: Thanks for talking with us. So you heard the opposition leader speaking in British parliament. Is he right? Should the United States, too, wait for clear evidence that the Assad regime was responsible for this chemical weapons attack?

PITTS: I agree. The president needs to consult with Congress, needs it let the Congress fully be briefed and debate this in an open and transparent manner.